Joseph Cornell is one of the most famous yet enigmatic characters in twentieth-century American art. A leading exponent of collage and assemblage, and a connoisseur of an astonishing range of subjects, including astronomical charts and geographical maps, Old Master paintings, literature and poetry, theatre and ballet, early cinema and ornithology, his work is rarely seen outside the US or private collections. This new exhibition in the Sackler Wing of London’s Royal Academy of Arts offers an overview of Cornell’s inventive and distinctive oeuvre in around 80 works.
The exhibition title is telling, for Europe held a special significance for Cornell, though he never visited the continent. In fact, he rarely strayed far from his home in New York, preferring to explore the bookshops of Fourth Avenue and the thrift stores of Manhattan, or venturing further afield to Long Island to beachcomb for the objects which appeared in his art works. But his imagination was limitless and he traveled widely via his work.
During his lifetime, in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, his work was dismissed as “toys for adults”, and it wasn’t until the advent of Pop Art in the 1960s, when still life and realism returned to the status of “avant garde”, that his work gained full recognition. Today, it is almost “de rigeur” for contemporary artists to create installations and assemblages, or to display their collections of found objects (as evidenced by a major exhibition on this subject at London’s Barbican’s art gallery earlier this year), and this gives Cornell’s work a particular relevance.
In his art, Cornell meticulously catalogued his preoccupations and interests, including tributes to actresses and ballerinas, living and dead, European Old Masters, astronomy, ornithology, travel, and literature. Collages are painstakingly cut from maps, magazines, postcards and photographs, and found objects such as clay pipes, tiny wine glasses, miniature pharmacy jars – objects which he valued because they had little intrinsic value or worth – are assembled into collections or displays. The objects were placed in carefully constructed boxes, almost like reliquaries for everyday items, and given cryptic or witty titles. Others make reference to artists whom he admired, such as “A Parrot for Juan Gris”, with its cut-out white cockatiel which perches in a box lined with maps and newsprint.
But for all his cataloguing and taxonomy, Cornwell himself refused to be categorized. Neither a symbolist, nor a surrealist, though his work shows elements of these movements, his work is perhaps more closely related to Pop Art and Fluxus, and that strand of American realism which elevated everyday objects to art, in the manner of Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans or Jeff Koons’ giant lobsters.
The exhibition is organized thematically to reflect Cornell’s artistic processes as expressed in his diaries and notes. On first sight, the works seem homespun and eccentric, but look closer for a beguiling and intriguing insight into Cornell’s world. This is delightful exhibition is timely too, for Cornell’s interest in collecting and categorizing resonates in today’s world of digital “scrapbooking” and photo-sharing.